I have recently been giving courses directed to web editors on how to successfully apply search technology on a public web site. One of the things we stress is how to use search analytics as a source of user feedback. Search analytics is like performing a medical checkup. Just as physicians inspect patients in search of maladious symptoms, we want to be able to inspect a website in search of problems hampering user experience. When such symptoms are discovered a reasonable resolution is prescribed.
Search analytics is a vast field but as usual a few tips and tricks will take you a long way. I will describe three basic analysis steps to get you started. Search usage on public websites can be collected and inspected using an array of analytics toolkits, for example Google Analytics.
How many users are using search?
For starters, have a look at how many of your users are actually using search. Obviously having a large portion of users doing so means that search is becoming very important to your business. A simple conclusion stemming from such evidence is that search simply has to work satisfactorily, otherwise a large portion of your users are getting disappointed.
Having many searchers also raises some questions. Are users using search because they want to or because they are forced to, because of tricky site navigation for example? If you feel that the latter seems reasonable you may find that as you improve site navigation your number of searchers will decrease while overall traffic hopefully increases.
Just as with high numbers, low numbers can be ambiguous. Low scores especially coupled with a good amount of overall site traffic may mean that users don’t need search in order to find what they are looking for. On the other hand it may mean that users haven’t found the search box yet, or that the search tool is simply too complicated for the average user.
Aside from the business, knowing how popular search is can be beneficial to you personally. It’s a great feeling to know that you are responsible for one of the most used subsystems of your site. Rub it in the face of your colleague!
From where are searches being initiated?
One of the first recommendations you will get when implementing a search engine for your web site is to include the search box on each and every page, preferably in a standardized easy-to-find place like the top right corner. The point of having the search box available wherever your users happen to be is to enable them to search, typically after they have failed to find what they are looking for through browsing.
Now that we know that search is being conducted everywhere, we should be keeping an eye out for pages that frequently emit searches. Knowing what those pages are will let us improve the user experience by altering or completing the information there.
Which are the most common queries?
The most frequently issued queries to a search system make up a significant amount of the total number of served queries. These are known as head queries. By improving the quality of search for head queries you can offer a better search experience to a large amount of users.
A simple but effective way of working with search tuning is this. For each of the 10, 20 or 50 most frequent queries to the system:
- Imagine what the user was looking for when typing that query
- Perform that query yourself
- Examine the 5-10 top results in the result list:
- Do you think that the user was content with those results
- If yes, pat your back 🙂
- If not, tweak using synonyms or best bets.
Go through this at least once a month. If the information on your site is static you might not need to change a lot of things every time, but if your content is changing or the behavior of the users you may need to adjust a few things.
At Findwise we are currently looking deeply into search analytics for enterprise search, a way not only to assure quality and relevance for your results, but to actually know and understand the users better.
Web analytics has been around for quite some time, but there are several things that makes search special.
There are simple ways to look at ‘top queries’ (most frequently asked), ‘zero-results-hits’ (which of course can be a result of bad spelling, but many times by lack of information) and popular searches over time (for trends etc), ‘Top queries’ can be fixed by static tools, bad spelling by good spell-checking and lack of information by synonyms and adding the missing pieces. But I believe we are missing something important here:
When a user conducts a search, he is using it to either:
- find a specific piece of information or
- find more and/or related information about a topic
- but, by doing so, he might find information that brings new perspectives such as:
- information he didn’t know existed
The process of search should always be a dialogue between the user and the search application. Simple: The ‘what‘-questions always have to lead to the ‘why‘-questions.
The users doesn’t type a query for fun, they have an intention when doing so. Why do the user ask for a particular piece or area of information? Depending on the intention of the user (specific piece, related or general information), different tools can be used to enhance information retreival.
Done right, search analytics can be used for tuning your search engine (weighting of documents, improvements of spellchecking, synonyms etc) and clearly improve information retrieval, but just as important, work as a tool for information quality assurance and management.
Within the next couple of weeks this blog will cover further aspects and thoughts on this subject. If you haven’t read Maria’s ‘What differentiates a good search engine from a bad one?’ already, I recommend you to do so.